Yes, I read during my writing time mostly because I think it makes me a better writer. In the same way that Anthony Bourdain likes to travel around the world, eating food prepared by other chefs (and making us drool about it at home while we watch his meals on television), I like to pick apart other people's books and learn what I like and what I don't like.
Of course, the things I've learned from reading nonfiction don't just help me write nonfiction books. I've also applied the information I've gleaned to blog posts and short essays. So the next time you sit down to write, pick up a nonfiction book for a few minutes and read two or three pages. I promise, these are the things you'll notice.
Break Up Your Information
Just like this. Do you see what I've done? I've used a header to introduce an idea, and in doing so, I broke up all this text into a little bite-size chunk.
I read a lot of computer programming books while I worked on, and they're often arranged with headers and subheaders, making the information you want easy to find within the chapter. You can use headers in blog posts by adding
<h1> and </h1> tags around a few words that introduce the idea for easy scanning.
Hook With an Anecdote
I grabbed this one from memoirs, but it totally works in all nonfiction writing, including blog posts. Lead with a story. Rather than launch straight into a recipe, talk about why you thought to make this dish in the first place. Do you have fond memories of your grandmother making this soup? Did you reverse-engineer the best piece of pie you ever tasted from the cutest cafe in South Carolina? Tell us about it.
Memoirs are filled with anecdotes, but starting a book by bringing the reader straight into a moment sets a tone. In Alan Cumming's book, Not My Father's Son, he begins the book with his father berating him at dinner. We feel the tension at the dinner table. We cringe for his mother who tries to help. We cry for the child who was held down while his head was shaved.
With this single story, he tells us everything we need to know to understand his father.
As writers, we can skip so many unnecessary paragraphs just by providing an example story at the beginning of a blog post or book.
Answer Possible Questions
I've been writing programming books, but to do so, I've been reading cookbooks. You're probably wondering what cookbooks have to do with computers, but recipes actually have a lot in common with code.
For instance, whenever I try out a recipe, I write all of my questions in the margins, questions that should have been answered by the author as they wrote the directions. Do I throw the flour and baking powder directly into the wet ingredients, or do I sift these two items together before adding? That should be clear in the instructions.
What about times when the recipe veers far off the beaten path, adding a confusing amount of a single ingredient? I just made a recipe that asked for a tablespoon of vanilla. I only added a teaspoon, thinking it must have been a typo, but if it wasn't, that would have been a good place for the author to explain why an unusual direction may be a correct direction.
Based on reading cookbooks, now when I write, I try to think of what the reader may ask when they encounter my instructions. I write into the directions why they have to do things a certain way, or times when they can tweak my code and make it their own.
I make myself very accessible in case readers have a question when they're using one of my books, but it's ten times more helpful to think through their possible questions and answer them in the first place, before they're even asked.
And it's not only a good idea for books. Look at your blog posts and make sure your words are easy to follow. Are there a lot of pronouns, and if there are, is it abundantly clear what you're referring to when you write non-specific words like "it" or "that"? Are there holes in your story that need to be filled so the reader gets the point you're trying to make rather than focus on their questions?
So those are three thing I've learned by reading nonfiction books. Go take a look at the nonfiction on your bookshelf and tell me one thing you've learned from reading other people's books.